African culture has always been a musical culture. While our music was early on misinterpreted by Western ears to be largely rhythmic, a closer listen reveals the African love of word play, put to great use as a pedagogical device to convey African moral values.
The griots and praise singers of old have become Africa’s modern musicians; Papa Wemba, Youssou N’dour, Rokia Traore, to name a very small percentage. As chroniclers they have recorded the tragedies of the people, they have inspired our struggle, celebrated our victories and mourned our fallen heroes. A specific category of musicians have dedicated their careers and often their lives to raising critical questions about the way Africans are being manipulated by powers both foreign and local. These artists often make use of and are inspired by Black Nationalist thought which they apply to African problems. A much larger body of work would be required to do justice to all the talented and dedicated musicians, well known and unknown that Africa produces. Instead, in this series, I will attempt to discuss a few, who I believe add much to the discourse on African protest music.
Amandla! Music of the Anti-Apartheid struggle
I would argue that any discussion of protest music must begin, not in the slave plantations of the Southern States of America as chronological and Western-centered thinking would place it, but in the Bantustans of South Africa. These “homelands” as they were euphemistically called by the Apartheid government, were more like Native American reservations in terms of the economic despondency they fostered. It was to these homelands, thirteen percent of South African land, that eighty percent of the population were confined. Anywhere else in South Africa, blacks had to carry a passport or passbook in order to prove their legitimate presence in the country’s urban centers. Many of South Africa’s tribes have a cultural tradition that is inseparable from music. As an unnamed schoolteacher in Helen Kivnick’s book Where is the Way: Song and Struggle in South Africa put it,
“Singing is what we do. We don’t think about why. We don’t sit down and learn how. We just do it, from when we are small, small, until we are dead. If we wouldn’t sing how would we be ourselves?”